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The Quill and the Queen

 The Quill and the Queen
By Claire Thomas

Rumor held that the king had died without an heir. 

Arda had her doubts – you couldn’t put too much stock in anything you heard in this backwater town. The hamlet of Dôl Glawog was too small for anyone important to remember it existed, let alone take the trouble to bring tidings all the way from Camelot. Stories like this one arrived in town like false spring – welcome, but unreliable, full of empty promises that planted hope where it was doomed to wither. For all anyone knew, the king could be alive at this very moment, surrounded by dozens of adoring grandchildren.

Still, it pleased the guests at the ramshackle inn to share some gossip over their supper. By the time sundown sent the men of the town in search of ale and mead, libations had already loosened the travelers’ tongues. Hearty food and a warm fire supplied the necessary fuel for animated conversation, and soon, travelers and farmers alike shed skepticism alongside their heavy, woolen cloaks. 

Arda did her best to ignore their tales, as heady and tempting as the rich cider she poured into an endless parade of mugs. She knew what it was like to allow herself to be swept up in the moment, captivated by stories of faraway lands. Invariably, she woke up the next morning on the same straw mattress, with the same chores waiting for her. And somehow, the damp, morning air felt a little bit colder, and the ache in her hands from scrubbing the pots was a little bit sharper, and the rest of her life loomed ahead of her like a desolate mountain.

Instead, she pretended that she was a rock in the river that flowed alongside Dôl Glawog, letting the stories slide over and around her. Words shimmered in the air like the shine of fish scales – elusive and impossible to track, but she had learned to take little notice.

It might be months before the truth trickled down to this inn in the middle of nowhere, and when it did… Well, there would still be pots to scour and floors to scrub. The farmers would still be toiling among the remnants of the autumn harvest, and the specter of winter would be drawing near, bringing long, frozen nights and the constant gnaw of hunger. 

Arda shook her head. Life here held no room for kings and courts; it was small and cramped, full of layer upon layer of mud, the sticky remnants of dried ale, and the musty odor of wet wool. Whatever happened to the faraway king might as well have taken place in an entirely different world. 

* * *

She noticed the stranger right away. Most of the travelers who passed through Dôl Glawog were familiar: peddlers and performers following the same paths they had worn across the kingdom for years. Other visitors, save the occasional tax collector or wandering knight, were rare, and this one was particularly unusual. He was clad entirely in gray, and even his long, dark beard was threaded with strands of silver. His clothes were rich, but worn and outdated. The fur trim of his cloak was shabby, and the embroidery that danced across his tunic was threadbare in spots. There was a stillness about him that seemed out of place amongst the rowdy occupants of the cramped inn. 

The other travelers clustered together, drawn like moths to the warmth and light of the fire, eager for company after long days on the road. But this stranger kept himself apart, sitting half in shadow near the door, where frosty air rushed in with every newcomer. He was content to remain on the threshold, neither within the circle of patrons nor entirely apart from it, observing the merriment without partaking. 

Once or twice Arda approached to offer him food and refreshment, but each time he waved her away with a twinkle in his eye. As the night wore on, his watchful presence slipped into the background of her thoughts like the words still weaving a tapestry of sound from those gathered around the fire. 

Another hour passed, and tongues began to slow, heavy from weariness and wine. “A song!” someone demanded, and then other voices took up the cry.

Arda sighed. This was the part of the evening that she loved – and dreaded – most. Her unknown parents had bequeathed her a sweet voice, a gift that the innkeeper never tired of using to glean a few, last coins from his guests. Singing made her heart throb with joy, but she loathed the moment when the final notes died away, when the ephemeral beauty she envisioned faded like a wilting rose, leaving her stranded in a world that suddenly seemed too harsh and loud.

Still, it was part of her work, so night after night she sang. Sometimes, it was a ballad. Other times, she turned to scraps of melody and lyrics that she’d heard the wandering minstrels perform, filling the gaps in her knowledge with her own embellishments. And once in a while, on special nights, she simply opened her mouth and let the music flow out of her.

This was one of those nights; she knew it before she even reached the fireplace. The tingling in her fingertips and the restless, erratic beat of her heart heralded the arrival of a song from some hidden place in her soul, a song that demanded freedom. So she sang to the travelers and the farmhands, the wanderers and the workers, and even the innkeeper. And while the music poured from her lips, not a word was spoken in the inn. The listeners remained motionless, held captive by a strange spell woven from her voice and the flickering firelight. 

When she surfaced from that stream of melody and emotion, she could not remember what it was that she had sung. And yet, the applause she received indicated that it had served its purpose. The innkeeper covetously collected his coins, and the sated guests began to stumble off to their beds in ones and twos. 

The fire was little more than glowing embers and the room was nearly empty when the stranger arose from his seat. Arda’s pulse rushed in alarm – somehow, she had forgotten that he was there. Embarrassment filled her at the thought that he had heard her sing. There was something ancient in his eyes, and she felt sure that her performance would seem childish and simple to one who had seen so much.

The stranger smiled a queer, little smile as he drew near. He stopped a few feet away from her, averting his gaze as if he were approaching a skittish horse. “That was an interesting song.” His voice was rough but resonant, like waves rushing over a bed of shale.

“Th-thank you, sir,” Arda stuttered, caught in a tide of panic. No one ever asked questions about her music. Would he think her mad if she admitted that she couldn’t remember what she had sung?  

“It reminded me of a story I had forgotten long ago,” the old man mused, seemingly oblivious to her discomfort. His gaze slid through her now, seeing something far away. The silence stretched tight between them as she waited, uncertain what was required of her.

Like a bow string snapping back into position, the stranger’s attention abruptly returned to the present. “I wish to offer you a gift, as thanks,” he said. 

“That’s very kind, sir,” Arda replied, immensely relieved that she would not have to supply any impossible answers. “The innkeeper collects the coins.”

He shook his head. “I wish to thank you, not the innkeeper.” 

“There is no need,” she protested, but the stranger was already moving. In two long strides, he swept past her to one of the oaken tables. The surface was empty and clean, although Arda could have sworn she hadn’t yet cleared the dishes. 

“Behold,” he said. “I offer you a choice.” His cloak swirled around him as he turned, and suddenly, three objects lay on the table beside him. “My pack has grown heavy during my travels, and I no longer have need of these baubles. Take the one you desire most.” He beckoned Arda closer, and she obliged, fascinated by the splendor of the treasures arrayed before her. 

The first was a golden brooch in the shape of a crown. Each point of the coronet held a glittering jewel in a different color: ruby, emerald, sapphire and pearl. It was dazzling, but despite the delicate craftsmanship, the metal was surprisingly cold and heavy beneath her fingers. For a moment, she felt something sharp and bitter gazing back at her, a foreign presence lurking beneath the brilliance of the jewels.  

Suppressing a shudder, she turned to the second object, a dagger of burnished silver. Its hilt was made of smooth, scarlet leather, and the blade lay upon a sheath of blood-red velvet. The contrast between the loveliness of the artistry and the deadliness of its purpose made her heart ache with a nameless pain. Her fingers twitched with longing, and yet, she knew the dagger would not bring her strength. Its power was no greater than the hand that wielded it.

The third item was so different from the others that at first she wasn’t sure what she was seeing. It was a feather, but so bedraggled that she could not tell whether it had belonged to a goose or an eagle. A strange feeling swept through her as she gazed at its tattered plumage. How did this traveler come to possess it? she wondered. What sights has it seen beyond the boundaries of this windswept village? What secrets can it tell?

Arda looked up to find the stranger waiting expectantly; it was time to make her choice. Only a fool would give up the riches promised by the dagger or the brooch, and yet, they whispered of darkness and evil deeds. Almost of its own accord, her hand moved towards the feather. 

Perhaps her ragged spirit recognized something kindred in an object meant for flight, yet forever denied the power to fly. It called to her, just like the fragments of stories and songs that had burrowed through the stony exterior of her heart. Whatever lies she told herself, however withdrawn she became, those images were part of her. Like dormant seeds, they lay beneath frozen ground, waiting for a spring thaw or a song to send them bursting forth.

She stretched out a finger to touch the plume, gently caressing its silky tendrils. What would I do with gold and jewels? They’d bring her nothing but trouble if anyone realized what she possessed. Decision made, she allowed her hand to close around the feather. 

Instantly, the brooch and the dagger vanished. Perplexed, she turned to the traveler with a question on her lips, only to find him shrouded in a glowing mist. His gaze was steady, but his face blurred, shifting like sunlight through leaves, revealing age and youth by turns as the forest wears its seasons.

When the golden haze cleared, the man who faced her was the same, yet different. His clothes remained shabby and his beard was still streaked with silver, but he was taller and straighter, with sharp, hawk-like features. His eyes were serious but not severe as he gazed down at her. “Tell me,” he said softly. “Why did you choose the quill?”

“Jewels cannot grant me what I seek,” Arda replied faintly, dazed by his transformation. “Nor can a dagger win me peace.”

“And what do you seek?” the old man asked.

But she had no answer. Her heart yearned for nameless songs and stories. In her dreams, she journeyed down tangled paths, through ancient forests and foreign lands, while unknown words called out to her, begging to be spoken. She longed for knowledge and freedom, wisdom and innocence, solitude and companionship. In her bones, she knew that life should be a road and not a cage.

And somehow, the feather sang of all of those things in a silent voice that echoed her own. Wordlessly, eyes brimming with the secrets of her soul, she met the stranger’s gray gaze.

He nodded, as if she had spoken. “My name is Merlin,” he said, “and I have come from Camelot.”

* * *

Afterwards, Arda wasn’t quite sure how it had all happened. She remembered Merlin explaining that the stories were true: the king had died of a sudden illness. Without a clear line of succession, the territories had begun squabbling, each staking a claim on the throne. When the dust eventually settled, the new king’s hold on the kingdom would be tenuous. He might need someone like Arda, Merlin had said, someone with her peculiar gift, her vision. “Come to Camelot with me, and I will teach you to harness your talent.”

“What talent?” she cried. “I’m only a kitchen maid!”

But Merlin smiled. “And the king was only a man,” he said, gesturing to the feather still clutched in her hand, as if it held all of the answers.

He must be mistaken about who she was, she told herself. Why should he upend her life with his riddles and ravings? 

And yet, her most persuasive arguments sounded flat and hollow in her own ears. Perhaps her longing for adventure had finally overwhelmed her good judgment, and Merlin was simply a well-timed excuse. Or perhaps she had made her decision the instant she reached for the feather. Whatever the reason, when Merlin rode out of Dôl Glawog on his dappled-gray stallion, Arda found herself riding at his side, terror and anticipation warring within her.

Now that she had sloughed off the bindings of her previous life, she found herself adrift in a sea of uncertainty. The patterns and routines that had defined her were gone. Without them, she felt as if her own edges had grown fuzzy. Who was she, outside of Dôl Glawog? 

Merlin said little to rouse her from her thoughts. He seemed preoccupied and remote, as if mulling over a puzzle of his own. And yet, the silence between them did not trouble her. He reminded her of a craggy rock protruding from the rough and windswept ocean. To him, the rest of the world was little more than the pounding surf clamoring for attention, gradually wearing away at him over untold millennia.

They journeyed on, days blurring together as the weather grew damp and cool. The summer light gradually faded from the sky, and autumn’s shadow lengthened, painting the fields with russet and gold. Strangely, though they rode through fields and forests, they met no other travelers. In the silence, Arda wondered whether Merlin was guiding her to Camelot, or to some hidden place deep in her own mind.

She had begun to think their journey would never end when, at last, the city appeared in the distance, a shadowy silhouette against the clinging mist. The Camelot she had imagined was full of shimmering towers and airy architecture reaching toward the heavens. In reality, it was cramped, malodorous, and nearly as muddy as Dôl Glawog. The few towers she saw didn’t stretch heavenward so much as hunch over the city like lanky lads, self-conscious of their height.

She was already thinking fondly of the lush meadows of home when Merlin halted in front of a massive gate. Its original purpose was unclear, forgotten or lost amidst the sprawl of the city. Dismounting, they left the horses with a young stable hand and crossed the narrow courtyard to a short, crooked tower that must have once been the gatehouse. Merlin swung the sturdy oak door open with surprising ease and ushered Arda inside. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she found herself in another world. 

Belying its dull and crumbling appearance, the interior of the little tower was spacious, yet cozy. Tapestries lined the walls, keeping the temperature pleasant despite the ongoing drizzle and wind outside. At the center of the room was a large, circular table with chairs scattered around it, as if a party had broken up in haste. A forest of candles was already blazing merrily, filling the space with soft, golden light. The scent of cinnamon and pine hung heavily in the air, and everywhere she looked, there were books. 

Some lay scattered across the round table, the shelves, and the chairs. Others stood in stacks on the floor, as if someone had made a half-hearted attempt at organizing them before abandoning the effort in disgust. Still more were heaped at the base of the cramped, stone staircase that wound upwards to another room.

Arda had seen books before, although only from a distance – the peddlers guarded such treasures zealously. But she hadn’t thought this many existed in the whole world, let alone in one room.

By the time she finished gaping, Merlin had hung his cloak up to dry and settled into a chair by the fire. He studied her, resting his chin on his steepled fingers.

“I don’t understand,” she said at last. “Why did you bring me here?”

He raised his eyebrows, as if the answer should be obvious. “To learn.”

“How? I cannot read,” she admitted, feeling the blood rush to her cheeks.

“Then we know where to start.”

Although she half-expected more riddles, Merlin’s approach was unexpectedly straightforward. He wasted no time in beginning her lessons, and before the end of that first day in the tower, Arda was learning to read the cramped markings in his books.

For the next several months, she spent every waking moment studying. Some evenings she was so exhausted that she tumbled onto the down mattress in her attic room and was asleep instantly. Other nights, when her head throbbed and her eyes were bleary from pouring over a stubborn page, she thought wistfully of scrubbing pots and clearing tables back at the inn. Why am I here? she often wondered. 

Whenever she felt so discouraged that she might have given up, Merlin appeared, returning from some errand or looking up from a book of his own. Sometimes he brought warm bread or sweet grapes from the market, coaxing her back to her studies with kind words and food, as if she were a recalcitrant mule.

She might have been offended by this blatant bribery from anyone else, but Merlin was different. For whatever reason, he believed in her. He wanted her to succeed, and she was loathe to let him down. So she accepted the food he offered and returned to her work with a sigh. The path ahead was murky and twisted, but she felt compelled to follow it.

As the weeks passed, winter descended over Camelot. It was the longest and darkest in Arda’s memory, and she quickly lost count of the candles that were consumed during her lessons. Although tapestries, rugs, and a roaring fire kept the worst of the cold at bay, frigid air whistled through every exposed chink and cranny in the ancient stone tower. Too often, her numb fingers could barely turn the pages in front of her. Even Merlin was reluctant to venture out in search of food and firewood. On the worst days, he waited until the flames were sputtering into ash before shrouding himself in wool and thick furs to brave the weather. When he returned, minutes or hours later, his cloak would be transformed into pure white, shedding a flurry of crystals as he whirled it off of his shoulders.

Time passed, and almost imperceptibly, the days began to lengthen again. One morning, Arda awoke to find that the last of the snow had melted. Tender green shoots dotted the ash and oak trees in the garden, and the air was warm and heady. Her heart overflowed with happiness at the promise of spring, and she couldn’t resist singing a spontaneous song of joy, tilting her face up to embrace the pale, weak sunlight. 

When she finished, she belatedly noticed the stable hand staring at her across the courtyard with his mouth hanging open. In the past, she might have been mortified, but today she felt too alive to care what the lad thought. She even waved at him before heading back inside, returning to her studies rejuvenated and with a new sense of purpose.

Over the winter, Arda had begun to see a change in her books. Ever so slowly, illegible scrawl resolved into letters, then into words and sentences. Encouraged by this progress, her efforts redoubled. Finally, as the first flowers of spring blossomed in the garden, stories emerged from the ink and paper, taking shape before her eyes. All at once, the door stood open.

Now, she could hear the silent voices crowded into the small, stone room. She saw the vast expense of knowledge that lay before her, waiting to be explored, and her heart filled with joy and wonder at the gift Merlin had given her. Left to her own devices, she would have been content to curl into a chair and spend the rest of her days listening to the whispers of the pages beneath her fingertips. 

But Merlin had been teaching her to write as well. All through the winter, he made her practice holding her quill (for that was the true purpose of the feather she had chosen) and scratching letters across bits of parchment. As her ability to read progressed, so, too, did her skill at writing. Although it was not as difficult as pouring over crowded lines of text, she found little to interest her in the art of making marks on paper. It was far more pleasant to let a new story carry her far away.

One day, she threw down the quill in a fit of pique when Merlin challenged her with yet another writing exercise. He shook his head in disapproval. “You do not yet understand the power you have been given,” he said reproachfully. “I did not bring you here so you could lose yourself in my library and abandon your gift. You have vision – you see both what is, and what could be. Now, you must find your voice.”

Arda bit her lip, filled with confusion. What did her voice have to do with learning to write?

Merlin sighed. “When you look deep into yourself and create a song that no one has ever sung before, you are performing the same magic that created these books. The only difference is that a book can reach farther in space and time than a human voice.” 

She frowned. “You mean I should write my songs?” 

“No,” Merlin said, holding her gaze. “Write your dreams. Bring them to life!”

* * *

The next day, Arda began to learn magic, or at least a certain kind of magic. She was distantly aware that Merlin knew many arcane arts that were not part of their lessons, but it served his designs, whatever they were, to teach her the magic that could be wrought with a quill.

At first, the subject felt foreign and inaccessible. She’d always believed that magic was real, but it was something that belonged to other people, not to her. Worried that Merlin’s patience would soon run out, she was reluctant to ask questions or remind him of her ignorance. But, to her surprise, he grew ever more candid.

In the past, they had practiced the alphabet, syntax, and grammar. Now, their conversations became subtle and scintillating, full of intangible, shimmering ideas. They discussed the power of dreams. Merlin explained how reality was a fabric woven of individual strands, and how it could stretch and bend around points of tension. Unravelling a thread or mending a hole could change the entire tapestry, and writing was merely one of many ways to seize hold of that fabric. 

As she grew accustomed to the idea of working with magic, her understanding of this world-fabric solidified. Initially it had seemed a pleasant fantasy, a daydream of what could be. But, over time, it morphed into a tangible realm with its own rules and topography. She began to see its possibilities, sense its boundaries. It was no longer an idea, but an awareness, a form of perception she had not known she possessed. 

When she swept her quill across a blank sheet of parchment, she glimpsed the purpose beneath each stroke. She imagined her words reaching into the world like a potter’s hands, testing and shaping everything they encountered. Writing took skill, but to work magic with words required intention, foresight, and vision. Now, she could bring together a pattern of symbols that would capture a simple thought or a wild inspiration. She could preserve the fragile butterfly wings of an idea, leaving an echo of her voice that would reverberate across time and space, and perhaps even change the world. Slowly, she realized that learning to read and write had merely been tools, steps along the way to a larger purpose that Merlin envisioned for her.

As her lessons progressed, her relationship with Merlin shifted as well. No longer did he coax and cajole her like a child. Instead, he allowed her to steer their lessons, asking questions and directing her efforts where she felt they were needed. Before, he had given her stories of knights and maidens, faeries and demons, designed to ensnare her imagination. Now, he shared histories, maps, and writings of his own. 

On the surface, they were dull and arduous reading, but Merlin said they provided a valuable window into the past. He had meticulously recorded conversations with the king, and his notes chronicled battles, squabbles among the territories, and dealings at court. Soon, Arda saw patterns emerge from seemingly insignificant details. The king spurned a knight’s son who sought to be a squire at the court. Months later, the same knight led a rebellion in an eastern province. The uprising was short-lived, but bloody and devastating for both sides. 

On another occasion, the king had been visiting a close friend, a knight in his court, when he had seen a beautiful, snow-white rose in the knight’s garden. His desire for the rose became so consuming that he compelled his host to surrender it to him. Soon after the king’s triumphant return to Camelot, the rose withered and died, leaving him filled with regret for his impulsive actions. He had gained nothing, but had forever lost his friend and ally.

Arda couldn’t help wondering how she would have acted in the king’s place. What kind of foresight was needed to navigate the treacherous reefs that lurked beneath each conversation, each decision? Too often, an unintended offense led to conflict or even war. Would a different course of action have averted bloodshed with a neighboring kingdom? And if war was necessary, could a strategy have been devised to ensure a decisive victory and save countless lives? 

Even as she read about the kingdom’s history, Arda’s thoughts turned more and more to its future. During the long and solitary winter, she had nearly forgotten about the world beyond the tower walls. But after the spring thaw, Merlin left on frequent, mysterious errands, bringing news of her countrymen’s suffering each time he returned. 

After months of conflict, no one had claimed the throne, and the ongoing uncertainty had thrown the kingdom into chaos. Each time one of the would-be successors was about to make a show of force, strange events and bad omens put a stop to their efforts. Mysterious ailments, winter storms descending from blue skies, and swamps rising out of grassy fields were only the most recent in a litany of ominous events that had forestalled each attempted victory. There were whispers that the kingdom was cursed, that the old king had been murdered, and that his vengeful spirit would haunt whoever wore the crown. 

The spring, which was already slow to arrive, had been damp and cold, leaving many farms mired in frozen mud. Food supplies were running low across the kingdom, and people were growing uneasy. Meanwhile, news of the turmoil within Camelot had spread. Old enemies to the north and east had been seen scouting the borders, clearly contemplating the chances of a successful invasion. With each passing day, a peaceful resolution to the conflict and a bloodless transfer of power seemed less likely. 

As Arda worried about her home and her people, she began to realize that the kingdom was more than its boundaries and more than a crown. It was the thousands of men and women who dwelt within it, toiling day after day in its fields and pastures, plying their trades in its towns and cities. It was the children who would one day carry on when their parents’ hands weakened and their eyes grew dim. It was the warriors who departed their homes for an uncertain fate in foreign lands. How could one person, even an exceptional one, rule a kingdom composed of so many lives, so many individual needs, and dreams, and talents? 

She had no answer, save the nagging suspicion that the purpose of a king wasn’t to rule at all. Perhaps, a good king was meant to be a scholar, a shepherd, a captain steering the land towards peace and prosperity. Perhaps the best one could do was to draw a boundary, within which people were free to live their lives as they saw fit. The king’s role, then, was to hold the line, protecting those within that circle from the forces that sought to tear it apart.

Merlin encouraged these musings on the meaning of kingdoms and crowns, but he would not allow Arda to neglect her studies. Although it was increasingly difficult to keep her attention within the confines of the tower, her writing was steadily improving. To her own astonishment, she was a natural in the medium that Merlin had set before her. Beneath her quill, light and shadow flickered in a subtle dance. Creative fire sparked amidst the darkness within her, burning away her own ignorance wherever it leapt. She wrote a rainstorm and a grove of poplars, rejoicing in the sound and splatter of each dewy drop, the texture and sway of every branch and leaf. A scrawled line across a page breathed life into a flight of swallows, their downy wings silhouetted against a blazing, golden sunset.

With each new attempt, she found that changing the world was not as simple as exerting your will; it was a process of convincing life that it was merely doing what it had been planning to do all along. 

One evening, on a whim, she wrote a song for the stable hand. Although she was beginning to understand this peculiar form of magic, she was still startled to hear the lad singing in the courtyard the next morning, unaware that the melody and words in his mind had flowed from her quill. The lilting air was both haunting and eerie, a reminder to heed the power in her idle scribblings. 

Even with the best intentions, it would be easy to use this newfound ability for ill. The thrill of creating was heady and intoxicating, like warm, spiced wine on a cold, winter day. It was difficult to be patient, to make sure she chose the right words before setting her pen against the grain of a fresh sheet of parchment. But she had learned the hard way that words – once written – were impossible to reverse. By accident, she had burned a favorite book of Merlin’s, and no amount of energy or ink she poured into the task would bring it back. She even destroyed the page on which she had jotted down the idle thought, all to no avail. 

Merlin merely sighed and nodded when she explained her mistake, but Arda could not forget the forlorn heap of ash that had once been a book. If what she wrote could not be undone, then she would learn to be patient and precise, no matter how tempting it was to let her heart rule her hand.

Gradually, Merlin began to test her. When she felt the urge to sing, he asked her to use the quill to channel her voice instead. And much to her surprise, she found that she could. No longer did the act of writing feel painfully slow and clumsy. Now, her pen flowed across the pages like water, capturing her thoughts nearly as fast as her mind could conjure them. 

For a time during her training, the battered quill had seemed like her enemy. Foreign and cold in her clenched fingers, it had taunted her with her own ignorance. But now, she sensed an inexplicable kinship with the feather, just as she had that first night at the inn. It had become an extension of her hand, a lost fragment of her soul with which she’d been reunited. It was her wand, her weapon, her friend, and at last, she could wield it with confidence.

* * *

One day, after yet another test of her abilities, Merlin leaned back in his chair, silently appraising her. He wove his fingers through the moon-silver strands of his beard, as he often did when he was lost in thought. It was hard to tell where his mind went at times like this. He might be pondering over the pages she’d written for him, or he could be thinking about something else entirely. Either way, Arda had learned it was best to wait until he was ready to speak.

At last, his eyes sharpened and met hers once more. Nodding once, he got to his feet and closed the tome that lay open before him with a snap. “It is time,” he said.

Startled, Arda remained motionless as Merlin began tidying the clutter that had accumulated on the table ever since she’d arrived. He gathered loose pages and scraps of parchment, piling them in neat stacks along with the assortment of books scattered nearby.

“Time for what?” she asked, when no explanation seemed forthcoming. 

Merlin paused, his eyes unfathomable as he gazed at her. “For you,” he answered. “For the kingdom. All you need do is reach out and take it.”

Arda froze. Was this another test? Merlin’s words were surprisingly direct, but she couldn’t believe that he meant her to take them literally. And yet, beneath her uncertainty and fear, some part of her felt calm, as if this conversation had been inevitable from the moment their paths had crossed.

“What do you mean?” Her voice sounded strangely distant and hollow, as if it belonged to someone else.

“The kingdom is yours,” he said. “Why do you think I brought you here? Why teach you how to use your skills, if not for a larger purpose?” He stared at her unblinkingly, inscrutable as ever. 

She had allowed herself to forget, during the long hours they’d spent together, that Merlin was not merely a wise, old man. He was clever, ancient, and devious, a being too complex to be entirely human anymore. Over the long years of his life, the selfish needs and desires that burdened most people had burned away, leaving him as sharp, deadly, and unwavering as the point of an arrow. His kindness towards her fit into some larger scheme; she had been blind and foolish to think otherwise. 

“You want me to rule,” she said flatly, weariness extinguishing the brief spark of her anger. “Why not choose one of the men who has a better claim to the throne than I ever could? Are they unworthy of your time and effort?” She could not keep a thread of bitterness from her voice.

“They are powerful men, yes, and that lends their claims weight. But you, too, have power,” Merlin countered. “Yours is of a different kind, far more potent than theirs. You have vision, passion, intelligence, and patience. You understand the struggle of moving from the darkness into the light. The life you led before coming here is common to most of the people in this land, and yet such an existence would seem foreign to the knights who wish to rule it. Unlike them, you hunger for knowledge, not control, and I know that you would strive to make the world better for those under your protection. So I ask you, who among those knights is worthier than you?” 

Arda was speechless. She had not known that Merlin thought so highly of her. She had never considered a world in which succession was determined by something other than wealth, blood, and the clash of armies. Could such a place exist? Did she have the skill, the knowledge, the fortitude to make it a reality? 

She gazed back at him, filled with wonder at the enormity of the thing he asked of her. “What if I cannot do this?” Her voice was thick with unshed tears. “What if I do not wish to take on this burden? I never sought this kind of power.”

“That is why you would make a wise and just ruler,” Merlin said. “But the decision is yours. The only question is whether you wish to walk away, given all the knowledge you possess. Can you leave the kingdom to an uncertain fate? Can you blind yourself to the suffering and injustice that is all around you?”

Arda shivered. It was unfair to offer her this choice.

“The future is in your hands,” Merlin said softly, affection warming his tone. “Will you write yourself queen?”

* * *

Shaken by the misfortune that had plagued them for months, the remaining contenders for the throne were determined to resolve their quarrel once and for all. They agreed to host a midsummer tournament in Camelot to decide the rightful king. Whichever knight won the joust would be crowned immediately, and the others swore to pledge their fealty before sunset that same day. At last, the realm would be united and strong, ready to fend off the enemies who sniffed like hungry wolves at its borders.

Word of the contest spread throughout the kingdom, and a steady stream of caravans began rolling into the city. There had not been a tournament in years, and everyone wanted to witness the victory of their new king. Lodging in Camelot became so scarce that most newcomers took advantage of the balmy weather and pitched colorful tents in the rolling fields near the lists. Overnight, a second city sprang up, made of cloth, rope, and open air. 

Now, as travelers crested the last hill on the road, they were treated to an unexpected sight: Camelot, gazing down at its own reflection in the grassy bowl of the plain that lay beneath its crenelated towers. This new likeness was brighter and softer than the face the city usually wore, as if it, too, had dusted off forgotten finery in anticipation of this momentous event. 

* * *

The day of the joust dawned perfect and sunny. A light breeze kept the temperature pleasant, and even among so many people, the air was filled with the delicate perfume of roses and violets and the crisp scent of pine. As she walked through the multitude of caravans, breathing in the soft, summer air, Arda’s heart beat a steady rhythm. 

She had wrestled with Merlin’s question for weeks, plagued by doubt. Could she change the future without using her gift for ill? Was this the very sort of reckless manipulation she’d sworn to avoid? And even if she somehow succeeded, what then? How could a girl from the countryside, with no wealth, no family, and little education rule an entire kingdom?

And yet, no matter where her thoughts went, they always returned to the same place. Merlin was right – she knew the suffering of her countrymen all too well. If she did have a gift, the ability to shape the world into something even a tiny bit better than it was, how could she turn her back on it? She might fail, but she had to try. 

Once she had set aside her misgivings, taking the first step no longer seemed impossible. She had focused on details and small tasks, ignoring the fact that every decision she made, every word she wrote brought her closer to this moment.

As she walked towards the tournament grounds, the feeling of dread she had carried for so long faded away, replaced by a strange mixture of restlessness and composure. Deep in her bones, she felt connected to everything, from the ribbons rippling in the air to the sounds of the merchants hawking their wares. Each sight and sensation echoed within her, resonating in harmony with the hum of her thoughts. She was ready.

She spent the morning lost among the crowds, observing the tourney from afar. The atmosphere was tense with anticipation and excitement, and yet people were clearly enjoying themselves, relishing a rare moment of indolence. Before their eyes, a new king would be crowned against a backdrop of sunlight and cerulean sky. It was the kind of day when anything seemed possible.

As the sun began its downward journey towards the horizon, one after another of the combatants were defeated. The contests were sometimes brief, sometimes fierce, but it was clear that two of the knights, Sir Eamon and Sir Baldric, were stronger than the others. At last, each of them had defeated all of his challengers, and only the final trial remained. This was the moment that would decide the kingdom’s fate.

Rising from her seat, Arda wound her way through the throng of onlookers as if in a trance. Her heart pounded in her ears, but she scarcely noticed her nerves. All of her attention was turned inward now, focused on the words she had crafted so painstakingly over the last few weeks. 

Reaching the edge of the field, she found the knights preparing to tilt. They brandished their lances, showing off for the crowd as their horses reared and stamped impatiently. At last, the demonstration of bravado came to an end, and the men turned toward one another, spurring their stallions into a gallop.  

Without hesitation, Arda ducked under the guard rail and walked to the center of the field, halting directly between the charging knights. It was too late for them to stop; their momentum carried them inevitably onward. She heard the collective gasp of the crowd, but she kept her gaze straight ahead, summoning all of her willpower to remain motionless. Time itself hesitated, wavering at the sight of the slender girl about to be trampled beneath those massive hooves.

Arda took a deep breath and closed her eyes, ignoring the imminent death rushing towards her. In the darkness, she sought a different truth, a new story, one she had spent weeks shaping and perfecting. She had tested the words so many times in her mind, searching for weakness and faults before daring to capture them on paper. Why couldn’t she remember them now? The horses thundered closer. Frantically, she burrowed deeper inside herself, blocking out everything save the pounding of her own heart. 

At last, she saw it, the work she had fashioned so carefully: a cloak made from gossamer and eiderdown, starlight and shadows. Gathering up the enchantment she had woven of her words and her will, she drew the glittering mantle over her shoulders, allowing it to cover her from head to toe. Latent magic burst into life, swirling around her in a storm of whispers that slid against her skin like raindrops and silk, encasing her in a web of her own design.

There was no lightning bolt or crash of thunder, no clarion call to announce that something had changed. And yet, when Arda opened her eyes, the knights were frozen in place only an arm’s breadth away, suddenly no more dangerous than statues. Each had clearly been attempting to swerve aside, but their efforts would have made no difference. War horses were not chosen for lightness or agility – they trampled obstacles underfoot.

Suppressing a shiver of horror, Arda stepped forward, leaving the knights to face one another behind her. As she moved, the power that had kept them motionless released its hold. With a sound like the twang of a bowstring, the horses sprang into motion, passing one another harmlessly as the knights dropped their lances. A few strides slowed their momentum, and the men wheeled their steeds to stare at her in confusion.

Murmurs drifted through the crowd. Lifting her chin, Arda gazed straight ahead, waiting. It was hard not to squirm under the pressure of so many eyes. She had never been looked at before, not like this, not by so many people at once. She was a scullery maid, a washer of dishes and a singer of songs. She existed in the shadows and at the fringes of other people’s awareness – she had never been the center of attention. Even when she sang, her voice had always eclipsed her physical presence. 

Standing alone in the middle of the tournament grounds, she was keenly aware of her own vulnerability. She struggled to keep her hands from trembling, her breath coming in ragged gasps. For the first time in her life, she was stripped of all hiding spots, unable to fade into the background. And yet, the crowd wasn’t truly seeing her at all. Wasn’t the magic she had created little more than a new type of shield, a disguise spun of glistening threads and fanciful words?

Even as the thought occurred to her, she knew it was false. She had assumed her power lay in illusion; presenting a pretty lie that distracted people from the truth. But the magic she wore like a second skin didn’t feel like a lie.

She had written herself as Merlin saw her: compassionate, determined, and visionary. She had written a self-portrait: a girl who was lonely, lost, and perhaps a little wild, with a restless hunger at her core. She had even written herself as she had been before Merlin came into her life: hopeless, uninspired, and fearful of her own dreams. But most importantly, she had written possibilities and potential: all the things she might do, all the people she might become.

Writing her stories had made them part of her, just as barbarians in the far north inked their bodies with symbols of protection and power. Now, her words took on a life of their own, shifting and intertwining in unexpected ways, telling a different tale to all who gazed upon her. 

Some saw a noble queen, regal and elegant, still beautiful despite the gray streaking her hair. To others, she was a slender, young woman who had seen many hard days of work, whose hands were red and chapped, but who kept her back straight and her head held high. She was, by turns, a warrior in gilded armor, a huntress, a scholar, a traveler. And yet, the present truth was still there, beneath these dazzling visions of the future. Those whose eyes had been sharpened by cynicism saw only a girl with a strange gift, who wielded a quill and had stopped time for a brief moment.

Among these images, there were other scenes as well, dreams of what the future could be. Camelot appeared, reborn as a gilded reflection of the true city that loomed in the background. No longer was it crumbling and cramped, its ancient structures slowly being reclaimed by the sodden earth. Instead, the houses were clean and tidy, with newly-thatched rooves. Wide streets wound up the hill to the castle, where towers of white sandstone gleamed in the sunlight, stretching proudly towards the sky. Below lay a bustling market, where merchants hawked fresh food, bolts of sumptuous cloth, and exotic spices.

The image rippled, and the city changed. Now it had become a place of learning, where scholars and students, priests and artists flocked in search of wisdom. The air was full of music and laughter, and the shops contained more books than one could ever hope to read.

Another vision showed Camelot in the midst of a celebration. A host of knights rode through the streets, armor shining in the sun as they returned victorious from battle. People cheered and children threw roses beneath the horses’ hooves, rejoicing in the knowledge that the kingdom was safe and strong. 

Were any of these futures truly possible? Were they conflicting realities, or could they reveal different aspects, changing seasons of the same city? 

After all, the guises flickering over Arda like dappled sunshine were not lies, but reflections of who she could become. The act of writing had made these versions of herself not only possible, but real, uniting a fragmented mirror into a single image. She was all of those queens, and none of them. Like Camelot, her potential lay within her, waiting to be released. 

Or perhaps she had it backwards; perhaps she could only write things that were already true. What if her power came not from illusion at all, but from writing the future that was waiting to happen? Was the magic of bringing things into being simply writing the truth for all to see? 

Relief swept through her at that thought, and for the first time, she felt truly powerful. The ability to change her life was – had always been – in her hands, and at last she was brave enough to accept it. Whatever happened today, she no longer feared the future, for at last, she knew herself.

At that moment, the ground beneath her feet began to rumble. The crowd, still stunned from the strange spectacle they had witnessed, murmured and shifted anxiously. Another tremor racked the field, and Arda was thrown to her knees on the grass. What was happening?

Before panic could spread, the earth stilled. As Arda slowly raised her head, a strange sight met her eyes. The ground before her had split asunder, and from the gap, an oak tree was growing, rising from the earth fully formed. There was a collective gasp as the tree spiraled slowly upward, revealing delicate branches adorned with blood-red leaves. Within moments, it reached its full height, and the earth sealed itself around the massive trunk. There was no longer any sign that the oak had not always been there, save for its presence in the middle of the tournament grounds.

A hush fell over the crowd. Then, a few people began shouting, pointing excitedly to the lower branches of the tree. Looking up, Arda saw something gleaming among the crimson leaves. A crown.

Merlin appeared at her side, his cloak glinting silver in the sunlight as he swept towards the venerable oak. “People of Britain,” he bellowed, waving his staff imperiously. “Fate smiles upon us.” 

His audience murmured uncertainly, caught somewhere between awe and fear. 

“There is only one explanation for the wonders we have witnessed here today: Britain recognized its true ruler when she set foot upon this hallowed ground,” Merlin continued, gesturing to Arda. “These marvels are signs of favor from the earth itself. You sought a king, but today, we have been given a queen!”

As he spoke, he reached into the branches of the tree and lifted the crown from its leafy perch. His cloak swirled around him as he spun, holding the golden coronet aloft for all to see. The crowd responded with a ragged cheer, and a wave of communal excitement and relief swept over the field. Merlin helped Arda to her feet, and the knights, who had halted their horses nearby, dismounted and began to approach.

“Sir Eamon, Sir Baldric,” Merlin said, turning to face the burly, battle-scarred men. “After the miracles we have witnessed here, do you accept Lady Arda as the rightful queen of Britain and renounce your claims to the throne?”

“I will,” Sir Eamon said, taking a knee and bowing his head respectfully. 

Sir Baldric hesitated a moment before following suit. “I will,” he said, with only a trace of reluctance.

“Then, by the will of the land itself, I hereby crown you Queen Arda, protector of the people and defender of the realm,” Merlin proclaimed, placing the coronet on her brow.

The spectators erupted in joyful chaos. Chants of “Long live the queen!” rang out, and people flooded onto the field as the celebration began in earnest. The knights who’d been defeated earlier in the day lined up to pledge their fealty, true to their vows. Any protests about the extraordinary outcome of the tournament were quickly lost amidst the tide of goodwill and merriment that swept towards Camelot.

Overwhelmed by how suddenly everything had happened, Arda looked up at Merlin. His eyes twinkled reassuringly, warm with unspoken pride. 

Her mind was in turmoil; she had never truly believed that the people would accept her as their queen. Now, under the weight of the crown, she began to realize the magnitude of the work that lay ahead. There was so much she wanted to accomplish, so much left to do. 

Yet, despite the challenges and responsibilities that lay ahead, she felt strangely light. Merlin had given her the greatest gift of all. Not the kingdom or the crown, but confidence. She had learned to believe in herself, and with that certainty, anything was possible.

* * *

Late that night, after ceremony and celebration had ended and the last weary revelers had stumbled off in search of their beds, Arda stood alone in the darkened castle. The royal chamber was full of rich furnishings, equipped with every luxury she could imagine, and yet, it felt far less comfortable than the cluttered tower where she had spent so many months. 

The night was mild, and she had left the window shutters open, allowing fresh air to drift through the musty room. The cool breeze soothed her aching head as she sat at an intricately carved desk. Removing the tattered quill from its chain around her neck, she laid it on the smooth, wooden surface. Despite everything that had changed, it looked the same as ever. Idly, she traced its downy vanes with a fingertip, her mind returning to the events of the day.

As soon as the knights had finished pledging their loyalty, a parade formed to escort her to the castle. She hadn’t expected such a show of support, but she welcomed it, knowing it would make any bitter, disgruntled rivals less likely to move against her. Although the people had favored her today, she knew there would always be some who would seek to destroy her in pursuit of the crown. She would need to remain vigilant, perhaps forever. Suddenly, the weight of the golden circlet felt unbearable.

A gentle cough announced Merlin’s presence behind her. As she turned to greet him, all the tapers standing on the table burst into life, illuminating the room with a welcoming glow. 

His face was shrouded in shadow, and his eyes, which had been warm and bright earlier, were distant. “I wanted to make sure you were properly settled in your new lodgings,” he said, taking a seat by the fireplace. It was a warm evening, but the castle was drafty, and the flickering coals gave off a pleasant heat. 

“I have everything I need,” Arda replied. “A girl will come to assist me in the morning, and I understand that most of the king’s staff still live here. They have offered to help me set things in order.”

Merlin nodded once and turned his gaze back to the fire, apparently satisfied by her answer. 

Arda suspected that he hadn’t been fully honest about his role in the day’s events. Still, it was hard to be cross with him after everything that had happened. If he hadn’t spoken to her that night at the inn, she might still be scrubbing pots and clearing tables, never trusting herself to desire anything more from life. Despite his strangeness, and his endless tests and riddles, he had always expected greatness from her. He had believed in her even when she doubted herself. 

She wanted to express her gratitude, but she knew that he would shrug off her words. Instead, she joined him by the fire, enjoying the simplicity of the silence between them.

As the last embers grayed into ash, Merlin cleared his throat. “What will you do, now that you have learned the secrets of your power?” 

Arda gazed at him in surprise. She had always assumed that he knew what was in her mind before she was aware of it herself. And yet, his question seemed genuine. “I will try not to fail at the task I have been given,” she answered carefully. “I wish to make this kingdom a better place for all who dwell within its boundaries, to give them freedom to dream, to hope, and to live without fear. I do not yet know what that will require, but I would be grateful for your guidance.”

He nodded, “I will offer my counsel whenever you wish it.”

She thought for a moment. “Then counsel me now. There is something I wish to do, but I do not know how to begin.”

“What do you seek?” Merlin asked, raising a gray brow. 

Arda took a deep breath. “I understand my gift, but only because you saw it first,” she said. “At your table, I was treated as an equal. You saw my potential, you helped me find my strength. There must be others like me, people who are lost and without hope, who have forgotten the fire that burns within them. I wish to offer them a place here in Camelot, a sanctuary where they can learn to embrace their gifts, as you taught me to accept mine. Together, we can breathe life into our dreams, our stories, and our songs. We can build a kingdom where people will prosper, where knowledge and art will flourish. After all, if one voice is powerful, what will many working in harmony achieve?”

She stared at the candles on the mantle, each one a point of light in the darkness, reminding her of her purpose. She was more certain of the truth in her heart than she had ever been of anything before. “You have done more for me than I could ever have asked,” she said earnestly. “But there is other potential in the world. I cannot bear the thought that because of my good fortune, others will have no one to show them the way. Will you help me find the rest of my table?”

Merlin smiled, his silver eyes softening in silent approval. “It will be my great honor.”

* * *

Claire Thomas lives in Massachusetts with her husband and her dog, Ash. She has written poetry and short stories and is currently working on a longer fantasy trilogy. In her spare time, she enjoys studying fairy tales and folklore, horseback riding, and learning to play assorted musical instruments. She has loved King Arthur stories since she was a little girl.

What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?

Fantasy helps us rediscover the mystery and magic all around us. It challenges our assumptions about what is possible and forces us to ask: “What if?” Although these stories take us to far-away, enchanted lands, we usually wind up learning something about ourselves and our own world along the way.